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Dean's blog: Welcome the travelers and the doers

Saleet Jafri
Saleet Jafri, Director, Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience

Throughout the month of May, we acknowledge Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This blog post is a conversation with the director of our Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, Saleet Jafri who shares his journey and the value of impactful mentorship.

“I’m thankful to have had so many opportunities. Despite growing up in what many would call a privileged household, my journey and that of those I love were not completely without injustice or adversity. My grandfather was the first Postmaster General of the Indian subcontinent who was not of British descent. Although my parents’ families were very well off in India, they had to give up everything and emigrate to Pakistan, to escape violence targeting Muslims. In Pakistan as immigrants and refugees they were treated as outsiders. In spite of getting the top score on the civil service exam, my father couldn’t get a job in the government at that time because of prejudice. Tragically, many groups have to go through this. We need to help people. Consider the tradition to welcome the traveler, treat them well. We are all travelers at some point. We need to treat them all well.

Due to my father’s job as an economic advisor for the International Monetary fund, my parents moved to Paraguay which is where I was born. Most of my childhood was spent growing up in Maryland since we moved there from Paraguay when I was six months old. 

I have been interested in science and mathematics for as long as I can remember.  Since the fourth grade, I knew I wanted to become a doctor to help people.  I was particularly interested in cardiology because of the cardiologists I met due to my congenital heart defect that was surgically repaired when I was 12.  

During my undergraduate education, I became very excited to learn about mathematical modeling in biology – a way of combining biology, natural sciences and mathematics to understand biomedical problems. In my senior year at Duke University, I got a phone call with a summer job offer from Professor W. Jonathan Lederer who had seen my resume posted on a bulletin board.  This turned into a long-lasting friendship, a key supporter, and he is my closest collaborator today.

After starting medical school, I realized that being a medical doctor was not to be my future.  I decided to take some time off and train for the 1988 Olympics and compete in Sabre.  Perhaps you have heard of or seen officiating bias in sports. Unfortunately, I witnessed it firsthand, from being unfairly seeded in a tournament because of a registration ‘not noticed,’ to blatant botched officiating (wish there was electronic scoring equipment then). In fact, I was nominated to compete in the 1988 Olympics for Pakistan (I was a citizen through my parents). Despite the nomination and after several telegrams, the International Fencing Association denied my entry.  Even then the politics of the sport’s governing bodies interfered with the spirit of the Olympic Games; they did not want a non-European who was beating their top fencers in World Cups competing in the Olympics.

While competing in the Enterprise Sabre World Cup on the NYU Campus, I visited the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.  I met several of the faculty who convinced me to apply for the PhD program.  I had great supporters and role models at Courant including Charlie Peskin and Dan Tranchina who helped with my admission and scholarship in the PhD program.  Yet, there were also others who from the start wanted to make things difficult for me and keep me from succeeding.

I realized there were always going to be obstacles. Despite my privilege, at various times, I have needed to advocate for myself and stand up for my rights. I’ve even had people attack me because of the color of my skin, including being mugged twice in New York. Yet, I’ve been very stubborn. I do what I want to do and don’t care what other people think. I try to always be polite and respectful of others. For every bad person being mean, there are ten people who aren’t. My advice: find your allies and supporters and keep plugging away.

In 1988, I started working at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine as a scientific programmer in the Department of Biomathematical Sciences, then entered their PhD program in Biomathematical Sciences in 1990.  I once again had great role models like Craig Benham and George Nemethy as I advanced.  I finished my PhD, graduating in 1993, and took a postdoc at the University of California at Davis with Joel Keizer, another outstanding mentor and role model.  After this, I went to the Department of Biomedical Engineering at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as a research faculty in High Performance Computing to help faculty with their modeling projects.   I was able work closely with Raimond Winslow and become an established leader in modeling the heart.  In order to get the academic training that I wanted, I had to go to three different programs – medical school to pick up the biomedical background, math graduate school to get the mathematics, and finally the Biomathematical science PhD to put it all together.

After Hopkins I went to the University of Texas at Dallas in the Department of Mathematical Sciences to start a bioinformatics program as an Assistant Professor for three years before coming to George Mason University in the Department of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology in 2002.  I was lucky to get a position in a place that was an ideal fit with a balanced emphasis on teaching and research.  It also brought me back to my home close to my family.

Throughout my time at Mason, my affiliated departments evolved. I became the department chair of computational biology from 2006 to 2010, which then re-organized into a new department. Then I moved to Krasnow neuroscience and became chair of that multidisciplinary academic unit. Although we encouraged multidisciplinary work, at times it was very challenging to do interdisciplinary research between schools of computational sciences, arts and sciences. We worked hard to create a place to work across boundaries without having to worry about politics.

The value of entrepreneurial thinking…and doing
I was recently honored during the university’s Innovation Awards Ceremony. Among many innovative Mason scientists recognized in different categories, I received the Start-Up Award in part because of my involvement across all the highlighted categories. I’ve spun off a start-up, shared invention disclosures, submitted patents and attended the national I-CORPs program and ICAP: Mason’s pathway to help researchers understand how to make tech fit to solve a problem that truly meets a need and is commercially viable.

In these scenarios, a successful team will be diverse. It might consist of a medical doctor, a business start-up expert, and a tech lead. Even with that diverse skillset, we also build an advisory board to flush out the diversity of expertise, and everything is data driven. Technology and data can be great equalizers.

Mason’s admissions policy allows a larger group of people to flourish, it’s not just about the students who get straight A’s. In fact, some suggest that the students who have broader interests beyond just staying in the library and only concentrating on studying and academics can be just as successful, if not even more so. I encourage students to focus always on learning in the classroom, beyond just the grades. Success comes from gathering knowledge and being able to use it. Innovation hubs and experiential learning at Mason is where students can take advantage of their other skills, the ability to work well on a team and solve problems creatively, which can also help them develop. 

Here’s an honest insight I believe to be true: five years out from one’s schooling, straight A’s are not the only thing. They also care what you can do.

Identifying with one’s mentors
Throughout my academic development and career, I have had outstanding mentors who emphasized hard work, honesty, and being helpful to others. I think it’s really important to have faculty and mentors that students can identify with and look to for inspiration and support.

All my mentors approached things with an open mind and encouraged questioning of their own hypotheses. They were supportive of young people; all on the team played a role in its success. Everybody’s ideas mattered. And all always gave credit to the students for their work--for none of this broad, important work can be done alone.

As our university continues to grow, we will want to consider the faculty-to-student ratio to have meaningful yet realistic opportunities for mentorship. It may become harder to offer the time the students need. We can make sure we have enough faculty who can devote the time it takes to impactfully mentor each student.

My biggest and most important role model was my father M. Haris Jafri, an economist with his PhD from UC Berkeley.  He told me once when I was older that he wondered why none of his children became economists, but I never felt any pressure to choose a path other than what I wanted.  He also told me and my siblings that in order to get to the same place as others, I would have to work twice as hard to be twice as good due to my background.  I have seen this to be true, as I have encountered many individuals that have tried to block my advancement.  However, I have been fortunate to have opportunities and advocates that have helped me move forward.  From this I learned that I must be helpful and help others move forward to achieve their true potential.

Will my two sons become scientists? More likely professional gamers. But seriously, they like science, computers, all the subjects, including history, English, and mathematics. Good teachers and mentors get us excited about learning all subjects. In my life, I always seemed to have options or make my opportunities happen. It didn’t stress me out.  I’ve learned to not pay attention to the doubters --do your thing. Do it well.

I know it seems easy to say. Stand up for yourself and do your best. Honestly, at the end of the day, the only person you have to please is yourself.”

Thank you, Saleet for sharing your insights and advice. It’s extremely disheartening that some of us experience a lack of appreciation and respect for our differences during our career. Unfortunately, you are not alone. At Mason Science, we strive to foster an organizational culture that promotes Anti-Racism, belonging, respect, and civility, and with good reason. A diversity of opinions, cultures and perspectives provides vibrancy to an academic community. And as Saleet notably demonstrates, diversity can be a source of innovation and growth.

Visit the dean's blog for more insights from Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm.